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How does leadership drive culture?

leadership and cultural blind spots

This morning my 10-year-old daughter was running late for school. Trying to usher her out the door, she told me it didn’t really matter because the teacher in her morning class is always late. Leaders, in this case a teacher, influence culture more often than they know.

Edgar Shein proposes in his seminal work, Organisational Culture and Leadership, that leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin – Leadership influences the organisational culture and culture influences how the leader «does» leadership. His, obviously very book-ish, definition of culture goes:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (Shein, 2004)

Where is your culture leading you?

No surprises so far. At its best, culture helps us unite and navigate. It’s a handy little behavioural roadmap based on shared assumptions. At its worst, culture can obstruct what the organisation is trying to achieve. This is when the roadmap might lead us down a dangerous path. Perhaps the culture doesn’t support the kind of customer focus that the strategy calls for, or it might make it hard for new employees to fit in, or perhaps it even allows for behaviour that is harmful.

As such, culture can work as both an enabler and an inhibitor. As a leader, which of these two paths are you leading your people down?

Leadership drives culture drives performance

A meta-study (Ogbonna & Harris, 2000) on the interrelation between leadership style, culture and performance shows that over time, the culture of the organisation will influence the leader and his or her leadership style which in turn will influence organisational performance (see model). In essence, you cannot consider one without the other. Leadership, culture and performance go together ­­– like three peas in a pod.

This happens so subtly that we might not even notice. And for this reason, leaders should consider something as straight forward as paying attention a leadership tool in itself.

culture performance model

This model underlines the – perhaps more immediate than one would think – link between performance and leadership style. It goes to show, that leaders can tap into what is immediately available to them by observing their own behaviour as the first step in supporting the overall performance of their organisation.

Good leadership behaviour? Expand your field of attention

Whether we are leading others or not, we all tend to operate in a default mode governed by our field of attention. Our field of attention is what we primarily see and therefore ascribe importance. This somewhat Johari-esque concept has a great impact on leadership and it urges leaders to be curious about what is happening outside this field.

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As with the opening example in this article when a leader is not timely, or perhaps one could even say not invested or present, we see that this field of attention influences culture.

A leader’s field of attention can be observed by the organisation in many aspects including:

  • What the leader perceives, measures and controls regularly
  • How the leader reacts to critical events and organisational crisis
  • The criteria from which the leader allocates resources, rewards and status
  • The conscious use of role models, learning and guidance, for example through coaching
  • The criteria from which the leader recruits, selects, promotes, pensions/retires and expels members of the organisation

Reading through this list and fleshing out some examples from your own workplace makes it obvious that the leader´s field of attention inevitably will impact the organisational culture. And arguably, awareness of self and others is a useful tool for leaders to grow and develop. The outcome is most likely a greater ability for leaders to support a working environment that is sound for both the people and the bottom-line.

Leadership and cultural trade-offs

To examine the concept of the field of attention a bit more, consider the following simplified notions of leadership. Perhaps you will recognise some of the cultural trade-offs.

  • Leadership as Gaining and Exercising Privileges. When leadership is regarded as the reward you get for making it to the hierarchical top where recognition and status shines bright. This could create a competitive culture inadvertently justifying moving up while keeping others down.
  • Leadership as Being the Boss. When leadership is overseeing the work of the organisation by telling everyone what to do, when to do it and rewarding or punishing accordingly. This could feed a culture of submission at the expense of employee ownership or responsibility.
  • Leadership as Task Orientation. When leadership is getting the job done – and that’s all that matters. This could foster a culture where people and relations are easily forgotten. Employees simply become resources, a means to an end.
  • Leadership as Taking Care of People. When leadership is looking out for the people you lead and making sure they get what they need. This could create a culture of caring, and perhaps also signal a less performance focused approach.
  • Leadership as Empowerment. When leadership is helping the people you lead gain power and be able to lead themselves. This could support a culture of ownership and responsibility, but perhaps also one that does not provide the direction needed.
  • Leadership as Providing Moral Leadership. When leadership translates as the leader forcing his or her own standards or preferences onto others. This creates a culture of (more or less explicit) expectations and a notion that things can be done «the right way» or not.
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The main take away here is realising that even when we are seeing clearly, we still have blinders on.

Cultural awareness as a leadership objective

At Workz, we work in the intersection of culture and leadership in several ways. When we design leadership training with a cultural or value-based component, we often prioritise making an intimate learning space. The benefit? Learning in a trustful context makes space for giving and receiving personal feedback which is the precondition for leadership growth and development.

We emphasise reflection as individuals and as a team on ways to apply leadership and how it effects organisational culture.

We often assign «homework» between learning modules. We ask participants to carry out a type of leadership action or behaviour that is somewhat out of their comfort zone. That is, any type of behaviour that can gently push the culture in the direction that supports the overall strategy. In other words, we encourage participants to actively explore the periphery of their field of attention. This could be praising a collaborative effort instead of performance output.

Where to start? Working with culture in leadership development

We have seen good results when using the following elements in our collaboration with clients looking to integrate cultural awareness with leadership training.

  • Geert Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions or Erin Meyers culture map model are great frameworks for analysing the different cultural aspects in global organisations. This gives a clear indication of the status quo, and it has proven useful when looking at gaps between the HQ culture and national sub-cultures within the same company.

Insights on Leadership Style and Behaviour

  • This can be found through organised self-reflection or data from employee surveys. An active use of data from exit-conversations, looking at what makes people leave the company is also useful. In Workz, we have often used different types of leadership style inventory models, such as Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles, to create a language of the «field of attention» and how it effects the culture in the organisation.
  • Lastly, as a specialty, we often include one or more of our leadership simulations. A business simulation makes learning highly engaging and gives instant feedback on participant’s leadership skills. Simulations are especially advantageous to shed light on one’s own leadership behaviour and bridge the gap between knowing something and building actionable leadership competences.

We hope this offers food for thought. Check out this article for more inspiration on how to design your communication to facilitate culture change.

What is the Performance Pathway?

The Performance Pathway

The Performance Pathway is the most important system to understand if you want a team that executes with discipline and energy. Leaders create culture. Culture drives behavior. Behavior produces results. The Performance Pathway exists in every team, including yours, whether people are aware of it or not. Implementing this simple and powerful system is the key to align, accelerate, and grow.

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It’s important to read the pathway from left to right so you can understand the cause & effect. It’s also important to read it from right to left and reverse-engineer that same cause & effect flow. Results are produced by the behavior of people. How people behave (attitude, action, words) is mostly shaped by the culture they operate in. The culture is created, communicated, and coached by leaders.

Leaders Create Culture

The role of a leader is to design, define, align, and refine The Performance Pathway. That starts with culture. Leaders own a big responsibility.

But what is culture?

Culture is talked about all the time but barely anyone understands what it is, what role it plays, and why it matters. If you’ve heard anything from me, then you know the role of culture is to drive execution through behavior. But how does culture do that and how do you create a culture that produces the behaviors needed by your strategy?

The effectiveness of your leadership—the way you bring clarity to your priorities, the support and training you provide, the direction you set, how you hold people accountable when they fall short, how you reward those who exceed the expectations—all these things drive and create culture.

The way you establish standards for your organization is what I call your Culture Playbook. It’s a way for you to organize, with exceptional clarity, the intersection of your culture and strategy that determines your execution.

Culture Drives Behavior

Culture is the strongest driver of day-to-day behavior on a team. It determines how people on your team actually behave and what they actually execute.

Having a strategy for the results you want is good, but strategies are essentially a plan. Culture determines how well you execute your plans. Execution is the intersection of culture and strategy. When execution falls short because behaviors weren’t up to standard, it’s largely because the culture wasn’t strong enough or aligned enough.

Want better results?

Everyone on the team has to look at their own behavior. Study better, sell better, have better attitudes, endure circumstances, learn new things, work together, trust more, learn how to connect and persuade, and do all the things required for your team to succeed. That’s as much a personal factor as it is a culture factor.

Behavior Produces Results

The results your organization is producing — or not producing — is a direct reflection of the behavior of people. If behavior is average you see average results or worse. When behavior is great, goals are met, and results excel.

If your team is underperforming it’s likely because behavior isn’t good enough to produce the results you want. Average behavior needs to be addressed by the culture.

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Four Ways to Lead The Performance Pathway

Build culture based on the needs of your strategy. Intentionally, with purpose, and with skill.

Your strategy calls for behavior from your team and culture is how you make sure those behaviors are performed.

You can design what your pathway needs to look like for your organization. The same elements exist for all organizations—leaders, culture, and behavior. What goes into them, the style, the standards, the principles, the beliefs, the technicalities, the frequencies of how those things unfold. Those are all unique and determined by the leadership of your organization.

Define what effective leadership looks like. Define what the culture standards are and why they’re there, a purpose behind those culture standards. Define the behaviors. Define what people need to do to be successful. Define what people can’t do if they want to keep working with you. Define how people need to go about their jobs. Define the standards of how your organization operates and where they have the freedom to bring their own standards.

Align your leadership. Align your culture. Align your behavior. These three must be in alignment with your organization’s strategy. Misalignment can do a lot of damage, even in organizations with great leaders, great culture, and great behavior. More than anything else, a lack of alignment is wasting valuable time and energy as your efforts are working in the same direction. The easiest way to get alignment in your leadership, your culture, and your organization’s behavior is to bring exceptional clarity through intentional communication.

The Performance Pathway is not a static thing. It is not a set it and forget it part of your organization. No, the Performance Pathway is a constantly evolving, constantly imperfect, and constantly in need of tweaks and adjustments system.

Leadership is a massively complex element in any organization. Now we’re adding an interactive element of leadership, an interactive element of culture, an interactive and by-far the most deeply complex area—the behavior of people, particularly in a group—with the pressure, stress, fatigue, and outcomes on the line.

Leaders are constantly refining how that pathway operates. Because as soon as you get it aligned, the nature of growth is that something fall out of alignment, and that’s why we are in a position to lead. Because as a leader we are uniquely qualified to changing circumstances and making adjustments when needed.

Leaders can design, define, align, and refine the Performance Pathway to their organization’s advantage, and it’s their role as a leader to do so.

If you want to accelerate results, if you want to improve your processes, if you want to serve, if you want to compete, if you want to change your strategy, if you want to attract more talent—the performance pathway is something that you have to pay attention to.

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The culture or the leader

Eggs in the nest

An organizational view of the chicken or the egg question

​What came first, the chicken or the egg? That question may be as old as time itself.

Explore content

  • Culture, leadership, and strategy
  • The cost of poor leadership
  • Fit with the culture, model desired behavior
  • Drive positive change
  • Connect with employees
  • Shape the culture

Culture, leadership, and strategy

At Deloitte, we’re pondering a modern version of that question. Does the leader create the culture or does the culture create the leader? Taking that a step further, what’s the cost to an organization’s culture if the leader is a “bad” egg?

Culture is a system of values, beliefs, and behaviors that shape how real work gets done in an organization. When organizational culture is aligned to business strategy, the workforce will act and behave in ways that support the achievement of business goals. It’s the leader’s duty to uphold the values and beliefs of the organization’s culture through their actions and decisions. This, in turn, enables the execution of strategy.

Culture, leadership, and strategy are the triumvirate that together steer the organization toward excellence—and much like any triumvirate, being in sync is necessary for an effective working relationship. Put simply, a stool with only two legs topples—every time.

Culture or the leader Download the PDF

The cost of poor leadership

So what is the cost when a leader fails to exhibit and balance these critical components of their role? A leader that does not align with, act on or uphold the organization’s values can encounter tensions that impact their ability to drive results. Poor leadership can reinforce the wrong values, behaviors, and attitudes, creating interferences that can shape a toxic culture and create discord between an organization’s image and how they actually operate.

A leadership study 1 conducted by Deloitte measured the impact of effective leadership, finding that the quality of senior leadership had a measurable impact on analyst opinions about whether companies would be successful. Results showed, on average, an equity premium of up to 15 percent for organizations with perceived effective leadership and a discount of as low as 19 percent for organizations that were perceived to have ineffective leadership.

These results reinforce an old saying: leaders make and break organizations every day. Leadership and culture are the cross hairs that, when coordinated, can make for a competitive advantage in an organization.

Let’s take a look at three key areas where the intersection between leaders and culture is paramount.

Learn more about our CulturePath Solution:

CulturePath: A comprehensive diagnostic solution that helps organizations drive precise and targeted cultural change. Request a conversation to learn more about CulturePath.

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